As of 19th November, there are 104,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1613 deaths in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. With a dual lockdown and sustained internet bans, individuals are struggling to perform basic tasks.
How much longer in lockdown? A question that’s been at the forefront of minds everywhere. For those living in Indian-administered Kashmir, it’s been the question for over a year.
The pandemic has created an intensity of shared experience across the globe. But lockdown conditions are all-too-familiar in this disputed Himalayan region. The health lockdown, which 7 million Kashmiris entered in March, has merged with a pre-existing military one.
Panicked stockpiling, deserted streets, bans on large gatherings and the closure of schools have all been part of life since August 2019, when the Indian government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status. It imposed direct rule from Delhi and a curfew on India’s only majority Muslim state.
In recent months, large swathes of the world have come to rely on technology as never before. Yet, as Kashmiris grapple with another form of lockdown — this time to cope with the health crisis — technology provides little relief.
Throttled internet speeds are a part of life under military lockdown.
“This virus has brought the entire world on its knees”, says Aakash Hassan, a young Kashmiri journalist from Srinagar. “But, even now, when internet is the most important tool available to people, the government is denying us this basic right”.
Kashmir’s military lockdown, which began on August 5th 2019, plunged individuals into communications darkness overnight. Without warning, landlines, broadband and mobile phone connection were all severed. A measure “to prevent militancy and stop the spread of misinformation”, according to the Indian government.
This was the start of the longest internet shutdown the world has yet seen — and one that is still not over.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Before coronavirus hit, the impact of the communications blockade had already been far-reaching. Pharmacists’ inability to contact suppliers led to medical shortages. In some instances, hospital authorities had no way of contacting the families of injured patients. And it could take weeks — or months — for news to reach people about the death of a family member or friend.
When the internet blackout was first imposed, just getting his stories out required great resourcefulness from Mr Hassan. He and other journalists would wait outside Srinagar airport, memory sticks in hand. They would scan passengers for a friendly-looking stranger boarding a flight, to trust with their work, hoping the information would reach its destination.
Yet the strangest, most frustrating part of it all: from his home in blacked-out Srinagar, “there was no way to even check if the story had been published or not.”
Since August 2019, restrictions have gradually eased. Landlines were the first to come back, and, after 7 months, internet was finally restored in early March. But only in 2G.
Even the availability of 2G is unpredictable, severed by the government for days at a time following outbreaks of violence. It imposed another temporary blackout after the killing of Kashmiri militant Riyaz Naikoo.
Now, persistent poor internet connection — in the midst of pandemic — is hindering access to basic health and education rights.
Glacial internet speeds prevent medics in the region from accessing vital information from the global health community. “Downloading the latest COVID-19 guidelines takes aeons,” says a local doctor, who wishes to remain anonymous. “And there is no possibility of attending video seminars for health updates”.
Kashmiri doctor, Khawar Achakzai, has used his 2G twitter access to vent his frustration, after he waited “a whole night” for a single research paper to download, to prepare for a shift at the emergency room in a Srinagar hospital.
Health workers aren’t the only ones struggling to cope with this dual lockdown. COVID-19, on top of earlier restrictions and the limited scope of 2G internet, has left Kashmiri students in despair.
Over the past year, students have resorted to drastic measures to perform basic online tasks. Before the return of 2G, some would board a train from Srinagar, dubbed ‘the Internet Express’, and travel for hours to the nearest internet café in Banihal to submit a single form for a university entrance exam.
In February, schools reopened in the Kashmir Valley for the first time since the start of military lockdown. Finally, it seemed, things were improving.
Within less than a fortnight, the virus had forced them to shut again.
“Students are incredibly frustrated”, says Mr Hassan. ‘’They hadn’t attended a single class since August (2019) and online learning was impossible.”
Today, it remains a great challenge. 2G internet hampers their ability to download educational resources or take part in video lectures.
Map showing total number of internet shutdowns in India. Kashmir: 184 (Source: internetshutdowns.in)
The Indian government insists that the ban is “absolutely necessary” for “maintaining public order”, since high speed internet is a tool to coordinate terror attacks.
India shuts off the internet more than any other country in the world, according to the Software Freedom Law Centre. Last year, it was responsible for 121 shutdowns, out of the global total of 196.
Kashmir is not unique. Shutdowns have been imposed in Assam, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Delhi. But Kashmir’s internet bans are on a different scale altogether.
Communication blockades are an economically costly tool of repression. While the entire world is now grappling with the financial consequences of Covid-19, even last December, Kashmir’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that the military lockdown has already cost the Kashmiri economy over $2.4 billion.
This communications blockade has not applied to everyone. Phones belonging to officers of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, the army and bureaucrats are all “whitelisted” — meaning they have functioned as normal, with full-speed internet, throughout the military – and health – lockdown.
“The Indian government can stop and start internet on particular numbers, as per their will and wish” explains Mr Hassan. If they chose to, “they could restore full internet on the phones of doctors”.
Medics from the region believe this would save lives.
“An internet connection, especially in a pandemic, is like an eye to the emergency physician,” says Dr Achakzai. “Kindly, don’t blind us.”